Book review: Training for the Uphill Athlete

Training for the uphill athlete: A manual for mountain runners and ski mountaineers. Publish in 2019 by Patagonia works. Written by Steve House, Scott Johnson, and Kílian Jornet.

This is the second training book I am reviewing this year (2021). What can I say? My massive readership of at least three demands my work! By the way, here is the link to the previous book, Training Essentials, which I must admit was remarkably groundbreaking and enlightening for me. So it is the misfortune of this second book to follow in the footsteps of what feels like its older and more experienced sibling. Nevertheless, the Uphill Athlete contains much useful information.

Disclaimer that I have an advanced degree in something completely unrelated to sports science / exercise nutrition; so this review consists of my own interpretations and is not scientific research.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the book’s foreword comes across a bit testosterone heavy; it includes anecdotes about one of the author’s physical prowess and man-feats along with a comment from another one of the author’s (temporary?) disdain for doing what authors do – write: “I don’t want to write.” And with that in mind, let’s begin!

Background and first section (Vo2 max, HIIT, and fat adaptation)

By way of background and introduction, this book was written for people who enjoy spending time in the mountains running or skiing (particularly skimo). I would think it is a rather tall order to fill to try and satisfy and provide relevant information to to such disparate sports, but the authors do make a strong case for the cross over in these endeavours and how their experience can benefit athletes of all or one of these sports.

In my review I will avoid trying to cover every section of the book. Rather, I would like to extract information I found interesting and provide some commentary thereon. Further below I will also provide a bullet list of items I found compelling but couldn’t quite work into the prose of this short review.

The first section of the book delves into the physiological background of endurance training and includes pages of information about the human body’s energy systems. I think the authors succeeded in explaining oxygen uptake and the body’s energy systems. In fact, I think that after reading this book I understood ATP better than ever before. Bonus – I also learned a new word pyruvate.

Related to the body’s energy systems is the issue of Vo2 max, the amount of oxygen a body can process (aerobic power). Unfortunately for me and many others who have been exercising for years, our current Vo2 max limit is unlikely to increase drastically in the future as it is (probably) largely based on genetics. We can, however, continue to improve our running times and performance based on improving our fitness and running technique; and yes, even our Vo2 can increase to some degree. One of the difficult aspects about trying to increase one’s Vo2 max is that it requires training above one’s aerobic limit, meaning anaerobic exercise, which should only be relatively brief in relation to total hours of exercise, and is always painful. This type of training, nevertheless, produces results. The problem, however, is that many people try to skip out on easier aerobic exercise and rush to anaerobic workouts. Enter HIIT.

High intensity interval training (HIIT) can certainly benefit humans seeking to improve their health. The problem is when these same humans forget to do lots and lots of easier aerobic exercise. Yes it’s true, easy exercise, during which you can still have a conversation, or at least exchange length utterances, is highly important to developing a strong body and becoming an endurance athlete. But what if you could skip all that easier stuff and go right to the hardcore workouts all the time? Time is money, man!

HIIT workouts have become popular and they do produce some results because they focus on Vo2 max. As this book mentions, however, the HIIT, “fitness craze… while important for any endurance athlete, should be used as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, aerobic base training” (p. 57). Even more succinctly “There are no world-class endurance athletes… using an exclusive HIIT program (p. 57). I fully agree with the authors on this issue.

But I don’t agree with them about everything… for example, fat adaptation.

Interestingly, this book seems to advocate for fat adaptation in endurance events (pp 60-65), which is the opposite of the stance found in Training Essentials. I don’t personally know enough about this topic to pass judgement, but it seems that simple sugars are useful for endurance activities. I mean come on, the famous sports drink Tailwind says that simple sugars are our friends in endurance sports? Would they lie to us? 🙂 So who is right and who is wrong about carbs vs fat adaptation? I don’t know, but at the present, I lean towards the importance of carbs in highly active sports like running.

Second section (Intensity, specificity and cross training)

The first section this book covers physiology while the second covers methodology. What this means in actuality is that the second section spends a considerable number of pages discussing intensity zones (zones 1-5). I think the descriptions of each zone are useful and can roughly be translated into other measurements as well, such as perceived difficulty (used in some other training resources). I don’t have much to add to that conversation, but i do appreciate that the authors explicitly commented on the issue of specificity and cross training, which I mention below.

About cross training. Basically the authors say that cross training is good for beginner athletes, or as recovery exercises for more experienced athletes. Should uphill athletes ride bikes? Here is what the authors say:

For uphill athletes, “…give priority to weight-bearing exercise… bikes are too efficient and this makes them LESS EFFECTIVE training tools from the time and specificity standpoint. The sitting position on the bike means that you do not have to support your full body weight, which greatly reduces the energy cost of the exercise and the muscle mass used to propel yourself. The bike also limits the range of motion, eliminating coordination, balance, and variability of the footing required while covering uneven terrain” (p. 99, emphasis added).

The rest

The third section covers the issue of strength as related to the uphill athlete and contains lots of great information and how-to illustrations on workouts to improve your general and sport specific strength. The fourth and final section covers planning for and executing your training plan, with some examples for consideration. To end this review, I present a few bullet points of what I liked and disliked.

Positive comments

  1. I agree with the authors comments on tracking your training – “As you know, in the mountains not all miles are created equally” (p. 127) so keeping count of your hours might be better than kilometers.
  2. I personally get excited before races and I am tempted to do more really hard workouts just before a race, which is probably not the best idea. The authors wrote: “It is far better to be slightly undertrained than to be even a little overtrained” (p. 137).
  3. Thoughts on strength training – “Just being able to deadlift more does not guarantee that you will be a faster runner. But, if you can deadlift more than those with a similar running speed, chances are very good that you will also run faster than those people”. Nevertheless, sport specific strength exercises are more important than general specific, like just going to the gym (p. 194).
  4. I particularly enjoyed the numerous short story posts from a host of athletes. For example, Rod Bien shares a refreshing (!) take on vomiting during long runs; “I’m so used to it now that sometimes I’ll throw up right in stride” (p. 51). I agree, vomiting is something you just need to get past. Get it out and then get over it. Don’t let it end a race for you (unless you are in a dangerous state of health). I also appreciated his comments on learning to remove internal negative thinking.
  5. The authors seem genuinely interested in sharing their knowledge and helping others benefit from their collective experience. I greatly appreciate their work and effort to help people like me try to improve. Thank you!

Less positive comments

Here are some issues the authors and publisher could consider for the future (updated edition?).

  1. This book, of some 375 pages in total, lacks the support more scientific research and references would have provided. Unfortunately, very few research studies were mentioned. On rare occasions the authors do mention scientific work from others, but sometimes they provide insufficient citations. For example, page 25 contains information about a theory of evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to find the research to which they are referring because the book includes only the year and last name of the primary author(s). Nowhere in the book could I find the name of the exact title of the research article or where it was published. I wouldn’t allow my own students such an oversight on a class paper. Readers are smart these days and many are capable of reviewing primary sources.
  2. The book has some typos and incorrect figures – and no, I wasn’t trying to find such problems when I first started reading. For example, page 61 and 62, check the spelling of Voltek vs Volek. Is this the same person? Another example – the Figure 2.11 on page 62 contains no reference information. Where are these charts from? Yet another example – a lengthy photo caption on page 60 is the exact same as page 64, for a totally different photo. These are easy fixes and pobody’s nerfect, so no big worries.
  3. A comment about coaching comes across as a bit tone-deaf, since I would assume many readers of this book are, in fact, self-coached. The authors write the following: “Coaching yourself is difficult to do effectively. Professional athletes with years of experience use coaches not because they can afford to, but because they realize the importance of an objective observer to offer guidance when they are in doubt and they know the value of having someone to bounce ideas off of” (p. 261). Other than the poor grammar in that sentence, my response is that I think I can nearly guarantee that thousands of non-professional athletes also know the value of an objective observer and would love to have a coach, but we can’t afford it. €€€€
  4. It seems that one of the official authors of the book didn’t actually write much, but just added some thoughts from time to time. I can understand this but perhaps this particularly famous individual should have been slightly downgraded in authorship? Maybe something like “Accompanying commentary from xxxxxxx”.

Conclusion

The authors are obviously highly successful in their respective sports and have worked hard to get there. I appreciate their desire to share their knowledge and experience. I think they succeed in including inspiring and relevant information that can help athletes improve. I do, however, have a lingering concern that the book tries to cover too many sports all in one, and that a trail runner may have difficulty navigating information specifically for themselves. In the authors’ defence, however, they do make a noticeable effort to differentiate sports.

Another minor concern is that the average athlete may look at the amazing photos and stories of international travel and sponsorship in this book and wonder how relevant the information is for someone without similar sponsorship or travel opportunities. Perhaps the authors could consider including some examples and stories from non-professional athletes – middle and back of the pack – and how they have benefited from the principles in this book. Such an approach may increase the appeal of this book across audiences and could level the economic playing field.

Final comment: Thank you for this book!

Epilogue: Please feel free to correct and/or comment on my review. If I have misunderstood something, I will happily correct it.

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